By Harvey Burgess
Oktoberfest, which takes place every year in Munich and other parts of Germany, is officially the world’s biggest folk festival. Around six million people descend on Bavaria for 16 days of beer, wurst (sausage) and more beer. The event has just finished for the 182nd time and the numbers are simply staggering. Over the course of the whole festival, close to seven million litres of beer have gone, while visitors have consumed around 150,000 wurst and 500,000 roast chickens. However these statistics do not even begin to explain the mayhem and madness that is Oktoberfest.
The festival first took place in 1810 in honour of a royal wedding of the Crown Prince Ludwig of Bavaria and his wife Princess Therese, with the main event being a horse race around the meadow – the guests had such a good time that they decided to do it again the following year, and then the next and the next. The Bavarians have not looked back since.
Drinking beer in excessive quantities is nothing new for the vast majority of British students, however Oktoberfest potentially surpasses any expectations you may have – it is simply unique. From the moment the Lord Mayor of Munich officially opens the festival on the opening Saturday with the famous Bavarian words “O’zapft is” (“It’s open”) until the numerous tents, rides, stalls and any other classic festival instalments are taken down just over two weeks later, the meadow known as the “Wiesn” by locals (and located just outside Munich’s city centre) is a giant-sized beer-fuelled party that runs all day, every day.
The keenest of visitors arrive well before dawn to secure a table in one of the many tents and can be known to queue for hours just for the privilege. You may think this is slightly ludicrous just to get a Maß (litre) of beer; however, it is well worth it. Once inside, moody waitresses (many of whom can carry up to twenty litres of beer at once, no exaggeration) tend to your every need as you lap up litre after litre of any of Munich’s six local beers, washed down with saltier-than-salt pretzels, while becoming best friends with the people who happen to be around you. A band plays in every tent across the park, with endless cheerful German songs soon becoming annoyingly stuck in your head as you sing along with limited knowledge of the actual words, and a fantastic rendition of Robbie Williams’ classic Angels comes on to signal home-time. It is no surprise that hoards of drunkards known as Bierleichen (“beer corpses”) pass out on the limited grass that the meadow offers, while even more end up in the hands of extremely patient nurses.
An article about the Wiesn is not complete without mentioning the traditional outfits that locals adorn. Lederhosen for the men, Dirndls for the women. Ironically the former are very comfortable, while apparently the latter couldn’t be less so (it’s basically a dress with a full skirt, apron and tightened chest area). Of course wearing the outfit is not compulsory but it really helps to fit in and join in the fun with the locals.
Oktoberfest is, however, not all about beer – it is actually targeted at families as well. There are fairground rides, candy floss stalls, shooting games and almost any other arcade game you can think of sprawled across the meadow and this is purely at the festival. The city of Munich has far more to offer and is well worth a visit at any time of the year. The Englischer Garten (one of the biggest city parks in the world and twice the size of Central Park in New York) provides a welcome escape in the heat of the summer, especially as you can take a dip in the river flowing through it. The main square Marienplatz is stunning, and houses the beautiful town hall, while the skyline is awash with spires and domes. Needless to say the city is home to one of the world’s best football teams as well, Bayern Munich – tickets to their home matches can be bought for as little as €20.
I can think of only a couple of downsides to this enormous festival; it can be exceptionally busy, especially on weekends, so it is best to avoid this time; and prices across the area for accommodation and travel are hiked up tenfold. It is worth flying to somewhere like Stuttgart or Memmingen and getting a bus from there, while hostels/hotels/campsites are well worth booked far in advance to ensure you get a spot. Or you could always just sleep on the grass for the night.